By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

11. Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, pp. 301-327

Moby Dick (Oxford World's Classics)Chapter LXVI: The Shark Massacre; Chapter LXVII: Cutting In;  Chapter LXVIII: The Blanket; Chapter LXIX: The Funeral; Chapter LXX: The Sphynx; Chapter LXXI: The Jeroboam's Story; Chapter LXXII: The Monkey-Rope; Chapter LXXIII: Stubb and Flask Kill a Right Whale; and Then Have a Talk Over Him
In some ways, sharks have taken over from whales as "monsters of the deep" in the popular imagination. So the grisly feeding frenzy of the sharks around the whale carcass has a special chill for us. But so it does for the crew of the Pequod, who commence to kill as many of the sharks as they can. The murderousness (to anthropomorphize as Ishmael does) of the sharks is persistent:
A sort of generic or Pantheistic vitality seemed to lurk in their very joints and bones, after what might be called the individual life had departed. Killed and hoisted on deck for the sake of his skin, one of these sharks almost took poor Queequeg's hand off, when he tried to shut down the dead lid of his murderous jaw. 
Butchery is everywhere on the ship: "The ivory Pequod was turned into what seemed a shambles." Ishmael lingers on the peculiar features of whale anatomy as the animal is carved up, observing that "the blubber envelopes the whale precisely as the rind does an orange, so is it stripped off the body precisely as an orange is sometimes stripped by spiralizing it... the blubber in one strip uniformly peels off along the line called the 'scarf.'" In a vivid sentence, Ishmael sums up the action:
And thus the work proceeds; the two tackles hoisting and lowering simultaneously; both whale and windlass heaving, the heavers singing, the blubber-room gentlemen coiling, the mates scarfing, the ship straining, and all hands swearing occasionally, by way of assuaging the general friction.
Ishmael is particularly fascinated by the sperm whale's skin, which is covered with "an infinitely thin, transparent substance, somewhat resembling the thinnest shreds of isinglass, only it is almost as flexible and soft as satin; that is, previous to being dried, when it not only contracts and thickens, but becomes rather hard and brittle." He also notes the wrinkles of the skin, comparing them to hieroglyphics, though "the mystic-marked whale remains undecipherable." Ishmael prefers to think of the blubber as being part of its skin, and to see the whale as "wrapt up in his blubber as in a real blanket or counterpane; or, still better, an Indian poncho slipt over his head, and skirting his extremity."

Stripped of the blubber, the "colossal" carcass is cast away and pursued by sharks and seabirds. It represents for Ishmael a "great mass of death." But even in death, Ishmael claims that "a vengeful ghost survives and hovers over it to scare." He tells of ships that, spotting the whale carcass at a distance, have mistaken it for land: "straightway the whale's unharming corpse, with trembling fingers is set down in the log -- shoals, rocks, and breakers hereabout: beware! And for years afterwards, perhaps, ships shun the place.... Thus, while in life the great whale's body may have been a real terror to his foes, in his death his ghost becomes a powerless panic to the world."

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Judith with the Head of Holofernes, c. 1530
The drifting body is headless, however. As Ishmael notes, "the whale has nothing that can properly be called a neck," so it takes an expert to judge where head ends and body begins. Moreover, "the sperm whale's head embraces nearly one third of his entire bulk." That head is "hoisted against the ship's side" where "that blood-dripping head hung to the Pequod's waist like the giant Holofernes's from the girdle of Judith."

The head is enough to provoke Ahab to a fantasia about what the whale has seen in the depths of the sea "where unrecorded names and navies rust, and untold hopes and anchors rot." He continues with his moral musings when the watch cries out that a ship is approaching and bringing the wind with her. Ahab says, "Would now St. Paul would come along that way, and to my breezelessness bring his breeze! O Nature, and O soul of man! how far beyond all utterance are your linked analogies; not the smallest atom stirs or lives on matter, but has its cunning duplicate in mind."

Unfortunately, the encounter with the Jeroboam is not one that will cheer Ahab or anyone else on board, even though, like the Pequod, she hails from Nantucket. The Jeroboam's captain, Mayhew, informs them that "a malignant epidemic" has broken out on board, and that he has forbidden contact with other ships. So they attempt to make conversation from a boat that the Jeroboam has lowered, which tries to keep alongside the Pequod as best it can. There is, in fact, more than just an epidemic on the Jeroboam. In the boat is "a man of singular appearance" with a "deep, settled, fanatic delirium in his eyes." Stubb has heard about the man from the Town-Ho's crew. He grew up in what Ishmael refers to as "the crazy society of Neskyeuna [actually Niskayuna] Shakers," which he left for Nantucket, where he joined the Jeroboam's crew. But once they were as sea, "his insanity broke out in a freshet. He announced himself as the archangel Gabriel, and commanded the captain to jump overboard." He failed at that attempt, but managed to gain a following in the crew, who prevented all efforts by Captain Mayhew to get rid of him. The epidemic on board only solidified his credibility with the crew.

Ahab, of course, is only interested in whether they have seen the White Whale. Mayhew had heard about Moby Dick in an encounter with another whale-ship, but when Gabriel heard about him, "in his gibbering insanity, [pronounced] the White Whale to be no less a being than the Shaker God incarnated." A year or two later, Moby Dick was sighted, and the chief mate, Macey, decided to go after him. "Meantime, Gabriel, ascending to the main-royal mast-head, was tossing one arm in frantic gestures, and hurling forth prophecies of speedy doom to the sacrilegious assailants of his divinity." Macey was standing up in the boat when the whale surfaced. "Next instant, the luckless mate, so full of furious life, was smitten bodily into the air, and making a long arc in his descent, fell into the sea at the distance of about fifty yards. Not a chip of the boat was harmed, nor a hair of any oarsman's head; but the mate for ever sank."

Macey's death only enhanced Gabriel's reputation among the crew as a prophet. And when Mayhew asks if Ahab plans to hunt Moby Dick and Ahab answers "Aye," "Straightway, then, Gabriel once more started to his feet, glaring upon the old man, and vehemently exclaimed, with downward pointed finger -- 'Think, think of the blasphemer -- dead, and down there! -- beware of the blasphemer's end." Ahab, of course ignores the warning, and changes the subject: He has remembered that he has a letter for one of the Jeroboam's officers that had been passed on to him. Ishmael explains that whale-ships routinely collect letters "from various ships, whose delivery to the persons to whom they may be addressed, depends upon the mere chance of encountering them in the four oceans. Thus, most letters never reach their mark; and many are only received after attaining an age of two or three years or more."

Starbuck splits the end of a pole so the letter can be stuck in it and handed down to the Jeroboam's boat. Meanwhile, Ahab reads the letter and realizes that it is addressed to Macey, the mate killed by Moby Dick, and that it's from Macey's wife. Mayhew asks for it to be passed over to him. "'Nay, keep it thyself,' cried Gabriel to Ahab; 'thou art soon going that way.'"  Ahab curses Gabriel and sticks the letter in the slit in the pole, but as he hands it over, the boat drifts so that the letter is in Gabriel's reach. He grabs it, impales it on a knife, and throws it back on board the Pequod, where it lands at Ahab's feet.
Then Gabriel shrieked out to his comrades to give way with their oars, and in that manner the mutinous boat rapidly shot away from the Pequod.

As, after this interlude, the seamen resumed their work upon the jacket of the whale, many strange things were hinted in reference to this wild affair.
Ishmael now recalls that when work on the whale began, Queequeg's job was to attach the blubber-hook to the whale and to remain on its back through "the whole flensing and stripping operation." Because the body revolves as it is worked on, it's necessary to secure the person on the whale with a rope. And Ishmael had the job of being on the other end of the rope, on deck. The "monkey-rope," as it's called, was tied "fast to Queequeg's broad canvas belt, and fast to my narrow leather one." And if Queequeg were to lose his footing and fall, "both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake." Thus, Ishmael comments, "my free will had received a mortal wound." And typically, Ishmael draws a moral lesson from it:
I saw that this situation of mine was the precise situation of every mortal that breathes; only, in most cases, he, one way or other, has this Siamese connection with a plurality of other mortals. If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die.
Adding to Queequeg's -- and by extension Ishmael's -- peril are the sharks, in whose midst he is hanging. And though Tashtego and Daggoo kill as many sharks as they can with their whale-spades, those sharp instruments also add to the danger because "both he and the sharks were at times half hidden by the blood-muddled water," so "those indiscreet spades of their would come nearer amputating a leg than a tail." And again Ishmael moralizes about Queequeg's plight: "Are you not the precious image of each and all of us men in this whaling world? That unsounded ocean you gasp in, is Life; those sharks, your foes; those spades, your friends; and what between sharks and spades you are in a sad pickle and peril, poor lad." Of course, in Ishmael's allegory, your friends, the spades, are almost as dangerous as your foes, the sharks.

Though the quarry of the Pequod is the  sperm whale, when right whales are sighted, Ahab gives the go-ahead to the capture. Stubb and Flask lead the pursuit and between them manage to take one. It tows both boats back toward the ship, and when the whale sounds it carries the line beneath the Pequod: "a swift tremor was felt running like lightning along the keel, as the strained line, scraping beneath the ship, suddenly rose to view under her bows, snapping and quivering." The whale tows the boats around and around the Pequod, and the sharks, attracted by the blood, follow. Finally, "with a frightful roll and vomit, he turned upon his back a corpse."

Ishmael is apparently a witness to the conversation between Stubb and Flask as they get the whale ready to be towed to the ship. Stubb wonders what Ahab wants with "this lump of foul lard," and Flask repeats a story that a ship that has had "a Sperm Whale's head  hoisted on her starboard side, and at the same time a Right Whale's one the larboard, ... can never afterwards capsize." He admits that the source of the story is "that gamboge ghost of a Fedallah" but "he seems to know all about ships' charms." (Notice that, in the end, Gabriel turns out to be a better prophet than Fedallah.) 

And so the talk between Stubb and Flask turns to Fedallah, whom Stubb takes "to be the devil in disguise" who doesn't sleep in a hammock but in a coil of rigging in which he hides his tail. Stubb further posts that "the old man is hard bent after that White Whale, and the devil there is trying to come round him, and get him to swap away his silver watch, or his soul, or something of that sort, and then he'll surrender Moby Dick." And he tells Flask a story about how the devil once asked God ("the old governor") for John. "'Take him,' says the governor -- and by the Lord, Flask, if the devil didn't give John the Asiatic cholera before he got through with him, I'll eat this whale in one mouthful." Stubb seems to have conflated the story of Faust (whose name was John) with the Book of Job, which explains Flask's confusion: "I think I remember some such story as you were telling ... but I can't remember where."

Stubb continues to suggest that God is afraid of the devil:
"Damn the devil, Flask; so you suppose I'm afraid of the devil? Who's afraid of him except the old governor who daresn't catch him him and put him in double-darbies, as he deserves, but lets him go about kidnapping people; aye, and signed a bond with him that all the people the devil kidnapped, he'd roast for him? There's a governor!" 
Stubb's justification of the ways of God to man, then, is that God so fears the devil that he gives him free rein to snare human beings, and then punishes the tempted human beings with hellfire instead of punishing the devil who tempted them. And if Fedallah is the devil, Stubb asserts, it's Ahab who's his next victim.

Flask is right about the whale heads: the right whale's head is hoisted as a counterbalance to the sperm whale's, and Ishmael draws a lesson from the Pequod's regaining an even keel, "though sorely strained, you may well believe":
So, when on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right.
Thus speaks the American pragmatist.

As for Fedallah and Ahab, it's not so clear which one is the devil:  "Ahab chanced so to stand, that the Parsee occupied his shadow; while, if the Parsee's shadow was there at all it seemed only to blend with and lengthen Ahab's."

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